As an action flick — which it is, among other things — Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is like the anti-Crank. Rather than keeping its adrenaline at a roiling boil throughout, this story of an Army bomb unit in Baghdad creates a palpable, nearly unbearable tension early on and skillfully maintains that tension for most of its 131-minute running time.
Scripted by journalist Mark Boal, who spent time in Iraq embedded with a bomb unit, The Hurt Locker is set in 2004 and follows the final 38 days in the tour of duty of a three-man crew in the Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad, who spend their days attempting to dismantle the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other bombs that have killed more U.S. troops in Iraq than bullets. The journalistic detail Boal brings to the film is heightened by location shooting in Jordan, just miles across the Iraq border, the use of lesser-known actors in the lead roles, and Bigelow's classical precision with action sequences.
Early in the film, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who has dismantled nearly 900 explosives across tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, shows up as the new member of a unit that also includes by-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and skittish Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn and Eldridge are accustomed to using remote-control robots to investigate suspected IEDs, but James disdains the bots and prefers to do his work up close, sometimes even removing his protective gear.
James is perceived as a reckless cowboy, particularly by Eldridge, and in a lesser film that might be all he is. But Boal and Bigelow make James a complicated character — a talented, committed professional whose bravado is part of how he copes with maybe the most dangerous and stressful job in one of the world's most dangerous and stressful places.
The film's plot is all procedure, structured as a series of missions (you could almost imagine a Godardian title: Six or Seven Things I Know About Bomb Units), none more gripping than the next. And Bigelow, who had her commercial peak in the early '90s with Point Break and Strange Days, brings a maturity and control to the film's set pieces that shames most contemporary action directors. The Hurt Locker boasts a spatial coherence that is key to the film's unrelenting tension: The viewer's awareness of the environments and potential dangers mimics that of the soldiers onscreen. The visual style is not choppy or grimy or overheated. There are no tricks.
By focusing so closely on this trio of soldiers and the missions they're sent on rather than taking a broader view of the Iraq war, The Hurt Locker is less a conventional war movie than a film about men at work. Along the way it privileges the soldiers' perspective: They care only about completing their missions and keeping each other alive, with larger political or strategic concerns absent. The job grinds on them. They cope with the danger by ratcheting up their bravado in their down time — the violent tension of the day yields to violent release at night — but they still fear death. They get fed up, but they also get a rush from the excitement, the danger, and the satisfaction of doing their work well.
This perspective results in a film that is generally apolitical, at least on the surface, but that leaves the viewer to mull over the worth of the job or the "war is a drug" addiction that brings some soldiers back to the action even when they have a choice to stay away.